Roman Death

Alison Cooley finds that Roman society's attitude to death reveals a lot about its attitude to life – as in our own time

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Reviewed by: Valerie Hope
Author: Valerie Hope
Publisher: Continuum
Price (RRP): £25

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Responses to death reveal a society’s priorities, anxieties and ambivalences. In recent months we have seen a variety of perspectives opened up by news stories, with the controversial death of Michael Jackson, public debate over the decision of conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife to end their lives in a Swiss clinic, and solemn scenes of the repatriation of the bodies of soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

Surprisingly, perhaps, it is only this last example that is alien to Roman society. Only imperial princes might hope to have their bodies repatriated to Rome: legionaries killed in battle would have been buried en masse in unmarked graves; very few were also commemorated by members of their family back home. Readers of this book should be prepared to think afresh about accepted cultural norms.

Roman Death is a comprehensive survey of attitudes to dying in Rome, looking at literary descriptions, artistic representations, and archaeological evidence. Nevertheless, given that the common masses, women, and non-Romans were all scorned alike by the male elite who dominate the literary record, our picture of Roman death remains a partial one.

Valerie Hope takes us on a journey that starts with attitudes to mortality, through death scenes and funerals, and ends with mourning and commemoration of the dead. Although she spotlights a relatively circumscribed period of time (first century BC to second century AD), she illustrates how attitudes changed, in response to shifts in political and social systems. The emergence of rule by emperors brought into question previously accepted norms, notably the tendency towards competition among the elite in constructing impressive funerary monuments. We also see shifts in the popularity of cremation and inhumation, and in the decision whether to inscribe an epitaph or not.

Some of the evidence feels reassuringly familiar: the adage quot homines, tot sententiae (‘there are as many opinions as there are people’) sums up the variety of beliefs in the afterlife that ranged from the nihilism of Epicureanism to the Pythagorean belief in the reincarnation of the soul (the emperor Nero was reckoned by one writer to be about to re-enter the world as a frog). Other aspects of Roman death remind us of the alien nature of antiquity. The word ‘cemetery’ is misleading in the Roman context: burial areas were not controlled and planned by public or religious authorities. Burials were placed along public highways on urban peripheries, inviting interaction between the living and the dead on a daily basis, with tombs built alongside shops and houses, and passers-by being invited to empathise with, and even vocalise the dead in reading out the epitaph (“know, traveller, that your voice is mine”). Tombs were not always simply gravestones, but might consist of whole areas with gardens, cooking and dining spaces, where celebrations might get out of hand, as St Augustine complained.

Looking at death should remove us from the comfort zone where Romans seem akin to Victorian gentlemen, and in this respect references to the Roman ‘gentleman’ with his ‘stiff-upper lip’ may lead readers astray. Roman society was a misogynistic patriarchy, where political losers could expect corpse-abuse, babies might be exposed, children who died less than a year old were not supposed to be mourned (the grief of Nero for his four-month-old daughter was merely another indication of his unstable character), pain relief was non-existent, and body parts might be left littering the streets of the capital.


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Alison Cooley, University of Warwick, recently published an edition of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti (Cambridge University Press, 2009)